I recently read Dan Harris’s book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story. It was an obligation read—I picked it up because I felt like I “should”—and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it and how genuinely useful it was.
Harris’s journey began when he had a panic attack on live television. Harris, an ABC news anchor, was filling in on Good Morning America when, in his words, he was “overtaken by a massive, irresistible blast of fear.” He couldn’t finish the broadcast.
His doctor quickly identified the cause: drug use. After several years covering wars in Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, and Iraq, Harris became depressed, and began to self-medicate with cocaine and ecstasy. The drugs boosted the level of adrenaline in his brain, upping the odds of a panic attack. But when he quit using drugs, the side effects lingered. He spent years investigating—personally and professionally—his own mindlessness, exploring the changes he needed to make in his life to be healthier and happier. In 10% Happier, he tells the whole story.
Harris made an offhand comment on page 98 that really clicked for me. He was recounting a conversation with his doctor, in which his doctor told him to treat himself like a thoroughbred: Harris needed to “not only refrain from drugs but also engage in careful mental and physical upkeep in order to stay balanced.”
This idea is not new to me. I often reference the “orchid child” analogy to describe one of my own kids. (Dandelions can thrive almost anywhere, but orchids require a very specific environment to bloom.) The concept is similar.
The idea isn’t new, but I never thought it applied to me. However, like Harris, I need careful mental and physical upkeep in order to stay balanced. And like Harris, I started my own journey when my anxiety switch was flipped on 9/11. (Anxiety isn’t at the heart of my struggle, like it was for Harris, but when I don’t take decent care of myself, I’m much more vulnerably to anxiety, and at that point it can quickly turn into a big deal.)
My circumstances weren’t nearly as dramatic as his, and yet—I used to pride myself on being pretty low-maintenance, and now I’m just not. At least not in these areas, where I require the thoroughbred (or orchid) treatment:
1. Food. Since I got pregnant for the first time, I’ve been prone to hypoglycemia. As long as I eat the foods that are right for me, when I’m supposed to eat them, and avoid the stuff that makes me feel like crap, I’m fine. But I can’t eat just anything without suffering the consequences.
2. Caffeine. I adore coffee, but in a cruel twist of fate, my caffeine tolerance vanished overnight several years ago. Now caffeine makes me feel panicky.
3. Sleep. I need a minimum 7.5 hours every night. Being short of sleep makes me physically and emotionally vulnerable, and sometimes makes me feel crazy. (What day is it? What city am I in?) I don’t always get it, and when I don’t I need to catch up fast: I slept a blissful ten hours in my own bed last night because I didn’t sleep enough, or well, last weekend.
4. Mental space. I need time alone to recharge and quiet time to let my thoughts spin out.
5. Meditation. I wouldn’t have put this on the list a month ago. I did this back in 2001-02 to get a grip again when my 9/11 recovery felt more like a chronic illness than a lingering scar. When I started to get better, I dropped the habit. But last month my therapist recommended that I take it up again right after I finished Harris’s book, in which he makes a strong case for meditation. I believe in signs, so I began again, this time using the Headspace app. I’d rather fall out of bed and do something else first thing, but lately I’m needing this morning tune-up for the mind.
I’d like to be an easy to please girl—but when it comes to these five areas, I can’t afford to be low maintenance.
Do you have areas in your life where YOU can’t be low maintenance? I’d love to hear your thoughts on those, and if you resonate with the thoroughbred or orchid analogies, in comments.
Books mentioned in this post: